The Mercury News Weekend
49ERS BEST PLAYER? NOT WHO YOU THINK
Offensive tackle Trent Williams' combination of size and speed is a unique weapon
SANTA CLARA >> The 49ers can claim they have the NFL's best roster. They have arguably the league's best running back, linebacker, defensive end, fullback, and tight end.
But there is no debate about who the 49ers' best player is.
Trent Williams is 34 years old and weighs 320 pounds, give or take. He has never scored a touchdown in the NFL. He has never carried the ball or caught a pass in a dozen professional seasons. But in the 49ers' locker room, the offensive lineman is the alpha of all alphas.
You might overlook Williams when the 49ers play, because offensive linemen are typically noticed only if something goes wrong. That's an exceptionally rare occurrence with Williams.
Still, Niners' coaches build the team's offense around the tackle as much as they do Deebo Samuel or Christian McCaffrey. Opposing coaches start their game plans with Williams. That's because Williams is not only the 49ers' best player — he's the best player at his position in the NFL. He might be the best player in the league, period.
“That's one of the things you work for, the respect from your peers, the higher-ups, your coaches, your front office,” Williams said Thursday. “Super blessed to be in this position, and I'm glad that they take notice.”
What makes Williams so good?
I asked around. The answer was consistent inside and outside the 49ers' locker room:
“Everything,” said defensive end Nick Bosa, Williams' practice sparring partner and the likely NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
It's as simple as that. Seriously, though, if you want to understand why Williams is so great at what he does, those practice battles with Bosa are a great place to start. Even showdowns with the NFL's best pass
rusher aren't fair fights. Yes, Bosa can beat Williams one-on-one — I've seen it — but I can't recall anyone else beating him in practice.
Jordan Reed was Williams' teammate in Washington from 2013-18 and again for the 2020 season with the Niners. During Reed's season in Santa Clara, he told his teammates he had never seen Williams lose a one-on-one battle while in Washington.
Over the last two seasons, Williams has played 1,805 snaps. In that time, he has allowed two sacks (0.001% of snaps) and been penalized for holding seven times (0.3%).
It shouldn't be this way, but Williams can do it because he is absurdly athletic, he's technically brilliant and he's an exceptional student of the game. Combine those elements and you have the only offensive lineman in the history of the Madden NFL video game to receive a 99 of 99 rating.
“He's the most talented (tackle) I've ever seen,” said 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, who coached Williams for three years in Washington before these three in the Bay.
Niners offensive line coach Chris Foerster also coached Williams at both stops. Before the 2010 draft — Williams went to Washington from the University of Oklahoma with the fourth overall pick — Foerster, who was the offensive line coach for some of the greatest linemen in NFL history, recalls being asked who would compare to Williams. “Nobody,” he said. Let's start with Williams' athleticism. Williams isn't just fast for a lineman — he's fast for anyone on the football field. No, he's fast on any field.
Williams was once clocked running 19.9 miles per hour in a game. For reference, Thairo Estrada, the San Francisco Giants' second baseman and fastest player last season, had a sprint speed of 19.29 mph. And Estrada isn't carrying 320 pounds. (Two of the 49ers' star ball carriers, McCaffrey and Samuel, clocked in at 20 mph in a recent game.)
Williams' combination of size and speed is a unique weapon, one that Shanahan has utilized in both Washington and San Francisco. While most offensive tackles play in a straight line — moving either forward to run block or backward to pass block — Shanahan will have Williams move laterally across the field on running plays, seeking unique blocking matchups and rushing lanes.
It's hard for an offensive lineman to go viral, but on plays where Shanahan's call pulls Williams toward the sideline as the lead blocker on an outside run, he has delivered some bone-rattling blocks of much smaller players in the open field that have become internet hits.
“Just a freak athlete,” said Fred Warner, the 49ers linebacker, arguably the best in the league at his position “He has the feet of a ballerina, but then the upper body strength of, like, a gorilla. He's just able to do it all. The savvy of the moves he does . ... He's for sure the best. Easily.”
But all that athleticism doesn't amount to much if you have no idea how to use it.
“Trent Williams is a great athlete, but if he's going up against, say, (Dallas Cowboys defensive end) Micah Parsons, you need the technique as well,” NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell said.
Williams did go against Parsons — the only peer of Bosa as a pass-rusher this season — last Sunday. Williams shut down Parsons. It, too, wasn't a fair fight.
The perfection of technique comes from film study. Williams is a voracious consumer of film.
“When we fly, (he) sits right next to me, and I also like to lean over and listen to how he talks about his approach to how he blocks guys,” said tight end George Kittle, arguably the NFL's best tight end. “The amount of tape that he watches on literally every single defensive end he's going to go against. He watches hundreds of cut-ups of every rush they've had over the last several years.
“Trent does such a good job with his research. His study. Just listening to him talk football — that's almost more fluent to him than English.”
Williams is looking for the rusher's main move and countermove when he watches the film. He's then choreographing his dance moves — hands and feet — to neutralize those moves.
“He enjoys watching it,” Shanahan said of Williams' film studies. “He understands what we're trying to do, not just his assignment, but the big picture of it.”
For the 49ers, it's a critical combination. It ensures a clear path in the run game and provides unmatched safety for a rookie quarterback's blind side. How valuable is that? It's certainly more valuable than the two draft picks — third round and fifth round — it cost the 49ers to acquire Williams in a 2020 trade with Washington. (The 49ers pounced on the bargain opportunity after Williams had declared he would never play for Washington again due to its handling of a head injury he'd suffered.)
The six-year, $138 million contract Williams signed in 2021 might even qualify as a bargain.
He is a massive reason why the Niners are in the NFC Championship Game for a second straight season, despite all the team's injuries, turmoil and midseason changes.
Williams has been the 49ers' offense's rock.
So, how good is he? See for yourself Sunday. Just watch No. 71 for a few plays.